Let Them Have Dominion: The Human-Centered Cosmology of Starcross

The challenge was issued eons ago, from light years away. And only you can meet it.”

Starcross manual, front cover

It is an old story. Humanity is unique in the universe and heir to a special destiny. A challenge from an unknowable beyond, if met, will open the heavens to them. Just as the earth is theirs, so too shall they inherit the skies. As above, so below. Humankind is set apart from all other forms of life. These lesser creatures exist for our nourishment, amusement, or service. They are resources to sustain us on our journey, and if they have things that we need, then they are ours to take. It is an old story:

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis, Chapter 1, KJV)

An ape kneels before an animal skeleton, holding one of the dead creature's legbones. It looks at the skull thoughtfully. This is the moment before the ape realizes that it can use the bone as a club to smash the skull. It is a scene from the film adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a novel that clearly influenced Lebling's work on Starcross.
Don’t give up, space man: a still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Old Future of Starcross

It is a new story, too. A Human stumbles across a world in miniature, designed to afford its chosen with sweet air, plant life, and plentiful food. Like our world, it is a small bubble of livability suspended in inviolate nothingness. The Abrahamic worldview that pervades western culture teaches that life on Earth is a test. That perspective, stripped of its religiosity, informs the story of Starcross. There, a Human, set apart from their fellow creatures in a familiar way, is alone capable of answering the call of an unknowable intelligence. To answer is their right and destiny, and all that the animals of this world have is theirs.

When the Human arrives at the alien artifact that serves as the game world of Starcross, members of (at least) five non-human species inhabit it: the weasels, the unicorns, the spider, the “rat ants,” and the grues. They all seem to be doing fine without the Human in survival terms. It is not clear what most of them eat or do with their time, but that is not important: unlike the Humans of Deadline, these creatures have no apparent lives beyond the frame of the player’s gaze. They do not enjoy autonomy in the way that the Human does. In fact, the only temporally fixed world event appears to be instigated by human action: some 300 (?) or so turns after the Human enters the artifact, the life support system will fail. Presumably, if the Human stays away, this machinery will run forever. The animals, then, are like insects in amber, free only in humanity’s presence.

Aboard the artifact, relationships between human and non-human animals are presented in an Abrahamic context (albeit a secularized version). Humankind’s dominion over Earth’s other inhabitants affords them license to deceive, bully, destroy, and devour if it will help them reach their destiny as its “chosen” species. This structure of power has persisted beyond the delicate bubble of Earth’s atmosphere; it is interplanetary. The aliens aboard the artifact aren’t “little green men.” Rather, these aliens are named after Terran species and are characterized in terms of their physical resemblance to their namesakes. The artifact, a manufactured world unto itself, is itself a restaging of a heavenly (used here in multiple senses) mandate: the world belongs to mankind alone.

Grues in Space

The grue is likely the most famous Infocom-imagined being, intelligent or otherwise. It enjoys a Wikipedia page, for instance, while neither the Adventurer nor the Human do. It is a cleverly devised constraint that prevents protagonists from wandering in the dark. When a character ventures into an unlit area, Zork warns:

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

A first encounter with this phrase seems a chilling bit of nonsense: an unknowable malevolence waits in the unknowable dark. When questioned further, Zork has this to say:

>what is a grue
The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.
A page from the "A Field Guide to the Creatures of Frobozz," a feelie packaged with Sorcerer. In the illustration, a pair of red and yellow eyes glare in the darkness. The text reads: "The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is Enchanters, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tell. Toxicologists believe that grues are black and black and red and black and purple."
The grue as characterized by A Field Guide to the Creatures of Frobozz, a feelie included with the grey box release of Sorcerer. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Grues have appeared in other Infocom games. In Sorcerer they are similarly described in A Field Guide to the Creatures of Frobozz, substituting only their meal of choice: “enchanters” rather than “adventurers.” Naturally, in Starcross, they prefer “spacers.” Wherever it is, the grue would rather eat protagonists than anything else. The protagonist is always the fixed star about which a grue circles.

An alien artifact is a curious setting for a grue. The builders of the artifact apparently caged them in a lit room for an indeterminate period–it is not clear how long an interstellar journey aboard the artifact requires–without an obvious source of food. By the time the Human arrives, the grues have escaped the cage, and there is a suitable habitat available: the six rooms unlit rooms of the “yellow ring.”

Did grues eat weasels while waiting for a proper meal (us)? If so, it is strange that such a frightening anti-entity would not be incorporated into their mythology (more on this below). “Oho!” you might laugh, pushing back the bridge of your glasses, “this is all rather silly. Grues aren’t real. They are a player constraint invented by Dave Lebling as a superior alternative to the bottomless pits in ADVENT.”

The authorial intent behind grues is, yes, interesting, but it isn’t very important here. The point is that grues are part of a massive, static diorama that only comes to life when the protagonist–the Human–is nearby. Grues live to eat humans, and they don’t starve to death waiting because they only live when humans are present. This, of course, isn’t unique to Starcross. They work the same way in other games. Still, there is something that I believe is possible only aboard the alien artifact: the Grue’s habitat can be completely eradicated. In Zork, one can light as many dark rooms as there are light sources. The Adventurer can walk from room to room with a lit lamp, but the darkness opens before them and closes behind. There is always somewhere else for a grue to live. It is always somewhere the player isn’t.

When the Human repairs the emergency lighting above the artifact, they eradicate darkness altogether. There is nowhere for the grues to go, and apparently no way for them to eat, since they only eat in the dark. This is a unique situation (a person attempting to FROTZ the worlds of Enchanter and Sorcerer would run out of illuminated objects–players of Spellbreaker might have better luck!): I do not believe that eradication of all darkness from a grue-inhabited world is part of any other Infocom game’s throughline. And yet this significant ecological change (those grues were there first, after all) is a non-event, subsumed in its own densely technical context:

Repair Room
This room is taken up by two large pieces of machinery. The leftmost has a symbol depicting the emission of rays beside a yellow slot. The other machine bears a symbol in three parts: the first two parts, in black, are a solid block and a fluid level. The third, in red, is a series of parallel wavy lines. Beside it are three diagrams; under each one is a red slot. The first diagram shows four single dots equally spaced around a six-dot cluster. The second shows two eight-dot clusters in close proximity. The third has three single dots equally spaced around a seven-dot cluster. The only exit is up some stairs.

>put yellow rod in yellow slot
The yellow rod disappears into the slot.

Afterward, there are no grues cowering in the computer room. They are gone, their environment destroyed. The grues, unlike the other creatures of the artifact, are emblematic of environmental conquest. The Human seizes the grues’ terrain for themself. It is debatable whether the narrative explanation for their presence is satisfactory–perhaps they were deliberately placed in deliberately unlit rooms as part of a test–but in the world of Starcross such creatures are either resources or obstacles in a narrative of human ascendancy.

The Cosmic Vermin of Starcross

The grue’s cage is not the only one within the alien artifact’s zoo:

This is a port-to-starboard corridor lined with small cages. The bars of the cages are bands of force, detectable only by the slight shimmer they produce in the air, and are non-working on most of the cages. A few cages are still on, and contain the dried up carcasses of strange animals.

It is clear that, at one time, several creatures were housed here, though no further information is available. Starcross does not recognize the words “animals” or “carcasses.” However, in the next room over, one of the zoo’s few surviving species is thriving:

Nesting Cage
The force projectors here aren't working, but the cage is nonetheless inhabited by many creatures who resemble crosses between a rat and an ant. They are multi-legged with chitinous shells and pincers around their mouths, but they have long ratlike tails and sparse tufts of hair. Some of them are armed with tiny spears and walk precariously on their hind legs. In one corner is a very large mud and stick nest. The nest is constructed of all sorts of odds and ends, including a red rod. The rod is embedded in the mud near one of the entrances of the nest.

Unlike the grues, who are in a sense primordial–they consist only of teeth and darkness–the other creatures aboard the alien artifact are characterized in terms of familiar, Terran species. This seats the Human in a place of privilege. In a human-centered cosmology, these animal-like entities are given over to the Human to use as they see fit. Dominion over creatures is their birthright.

Detail from the Zork Users Group map of Starcross. In the back ground are several "rat-ants." The have the shape and heads of ants, but their body sections are partially covered in both chitin and fur. The have long, thin, and hairless tails, just as rats do.
Rat ants as imagined by the Zork Users Group. Courtesy of MoCAGH.

These “rat-ants” initially seem to merely be a mashup of incompatible, unattractive qualities: critters wandering in and out of a nest. They can’t appreciate, one might assume, the value of the red rod. “They don’t need it the way I do,” the Human might think.

And they’d be right, in multiple senses. The red rod is used to make the atmosphere breathable, which would benefit all organisms aboard the artifact. In this way, the human must play uncelebrated savior to these bugs. In a greater sense, they are unlikely to appreciate the historic nature of mankind’s first encounter with a more advanced civilization. After all, this artifact is hardly new to the rat ants–they were here first. Since these insectoids simply can’t get it, destroying their nest is simply the broken egg to the protagonist’s omelet:

>get red rod
As you reach for the red rod, a rat-ant pokes its head out of the nest and snaps at you with its needle-sharp mandibles. You draw back just in time.

>throw gun at nest
The nest smashes into fragments and the rat-ants stop dead in their tracks! They frantically evacuate the nest and immediately begin constructing a new nest at the opposite end of the cage. Rat-ant babies are being carried across the cage, and warriors watch you suspiciously.

>get rod

However, in case the player missed it initially, perhaps a closer look is warranted:

>examine rat
They look like a cross between a rat and an ant. They have chitinous shells, mandibles, and exhibit an ant-like social order. They also have hair, bear live young, and are roughly the size of rats. They have a crude intelligence, evidenced by the spears of the warrior caste. The cage has many rat-ants of varying sizes, ages, and social roles.

These organisms make spears? Is their “intelligence” crude, or does the narrator mean their technology? In a meta sense, I have to ask: is a person who is smart enough to overcome every problem in Starcross really limited to “throw heavy thing at rat-ant village?” In a practical sense, the answer is that no reasonable Human would bother trying to think of anything else because, in a human-centered cosmology, the animal other is always either obstacle or resource.

The Short, Unhappy Tale of the Cowardly Lizard Man

The Yellow Ring, once home to a happily liberated population of grues, is now well lit. Within it lies the Yellow Airlock, the site of an explosion of some sort. The Human first viewed it from the artifact’s exterior when they first arrived:

As the object rotates below, the features of a different area become visible through the viewport.
This area has a yellow dome. The surface of the object here looks damaged and scorched, and is littered with tangled debris.

It doesn’t look very different up close:

Among Debris
You are among the blackened and twisted metal left by a huge explosion. The tentacle housings have been destroyed. To starboard is the airlock dome.

Entangled in the wreckage is the scorched body of a creature resembling a large reptile, almost a miniature allosaurus, clad in the remains of a space suit.

Clutched in the reptile's claw is a pink rod.

Starcross invites us to speculate why each nonhuman, spacefaring species failed to solve the mysteries of the artifact. Why does the Human succeed where they–each described in terms of animal features–fail? The video game answer is, of course, that they aren’t protagonists. There’s more to it than that, though. It is hardly controversial to say that western culture–even its secular or atheistic elements–rises out of a religious context. That is its history. While there is no Abrahamic presence in Starcross, it retains a certain Abrahamic ambiance: the universe of Starcross is indelibly human-centered. In each case, the non-human species are myopically incapable of grasping the grand vision of a secularized chain of being.

As for the lizard: they apparently attempted to flee the test, only to blow up their ship (and themselves) while attempting to destroy or disconnect the cables binding it to the artifact.

The Human out on a spacewalk, standing "upside down" on the metal skin of the artifact. They are held in place by their magnetic boots. The Human reaches out to ain airlock, intending to enter. The vastness of space hangs in the background.

The Curious Case of the Incurious Spider

The ship at the Blue Airlock remains intact:

As the object rotates below, the features of a different area become visible through the viewport.
There is an area with a blue dome below. Near the dome is a spherical object which just might be a spaceship. It is held down by silvery ropes.

The Human may visit this spaceship at any time, provided they have a spacesuit. Within is a sight worth quoting in its entirety:

Spherical Ship
You are within a huge bubble, transparent from this side. The interior is crisscrossed with wire webbing, so that an agile creature could move around using only the wires. Objects are stuck in the wires in various out-of-reach places. The whole impression is of a rather untidy spiderweb. The connection to the artifact is at the forward end of the sphere.

Crouched in the center of the sphere, where the wires converge, is a creature resembling a giant spider. A closer look reveals that it is not an insect, but rather a multi-legged, endoskeletal mammal. It has huge eyes and impressive grinding teeth. It grips the wires with many tiny fingers, and gazes at you with almost hypnotic intensity.

The spider watches you with multifaceted eyes.

>hello, spider
The spider draws forth an object from a wire clump. He fiddles with it and a voice issues from it: "Greetings, creature from Earth. Are you afraid of me? Come closer, I won't harm you."

The spider tells you his name is "Gurthark-tun-Besnap," (or something more-or-less that). Like yourself, he landed here to explore. He failed to control the artifact before it left his system, and has been stranded here for centuries. He sighs. "It's getting a little boring. The other inhabitants of this place are not too stimulating. The computer was some company until it malfunctioned. When we began to approach your system, I got excited! A whole new culture to learn! The end of boredom, for a while at least. I fed your language to my translator, from your radio broadcasts, and have eagerly awaited your arrival." He grins broadly, a fairly horrific sight.

Sadly, the Human can’t talk to the spider (other than to say “hello”), but the Spider is nevertheless a talker. He’s been there a long time and is bored stiff. Gurthak is intellectually curious, and may be more intelligent than the Human.

Another detail from the Zork Users Group map. Gurthak the spider stands in his metal "web."He is an eight-legged, spider-shaped creature. However, he is not a spider; at the end of each leg is a hand. His face is grotesquely mammalian. it is a distortion of a human face, with massive eyes, a broad, oversized grin, and large teeth. His body is covered with hair.
Gurthak the spider is smart enough to fix the artifact, but he just doesn’t have humanity’s can-do spirit. Retrieved from the ZUG map for Starcross at MoCAGH.

Why didn’t he take the test that the artifact presents? Why wouldn’t a bored, intelligent entity with centuries to kill solve the mystery of the artifact? Even after it left the spider’s star system, wouldn’t it at least be something to do?

I’ve previously argued that the spider’s inaction is an unsolved problem of the narrative. But let’s go further. In terms of intelligence and technical aptitude Gurthak appears to be as capable as the Human. What separates the spider from the Human? The answer shouldn’t surprise: in Starcross (and in the west, generally), a spider can’t lick a spaceman. In fact, in this cosmology, the least visibly human creature is the least fitting to meet the challenge of a remote-yet-powerful intelligence. That spider may be smart, but he doesn’t have our can-do spirit, our moxie.

He is, at least, the only intelligent species that the Human doesn’t mislead or jerk around. Instead, the protagonist trades with him: a tape library for a yellow crystal.

The yellow crystal, of course, turns on the lights in the yellow ring. So long, grues.

King Solomon’s Spacesuit: The Weasel People of Starcross

Another detail from the Zork Users Group map of Starcross. This image shows a group of furry "weasel men"--their bodies and limbs are similar to a human's, but they have weasel-like heads and facial features. Their hands and arms seem unusually long and slender, and they hold spears made of long wooden shafts. Their tips are unidentified, sharp looking objects fasted with twine. The lead weasel holds their forefinger to their lips: a "hush" gesture.
The weasels as imagined by the Zork Users Group. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Sensitive readers may already wonder about the cultural implications of the ant-rats (spear-wielding organisms of “crude intelligence”), but the weasels of the green ring are in another class entirely. They are a sort of intermediate step between the rat-ant (intelligent creature) and human (the chosen). Like the rat-ants, they construct homes and wield tools. Like humans, they make cultural artifacts reflecting aesthetic and cultural values (the rat-ants might have had such items in their destroyed nests). They are, in other words, “debased” or “primitive” people. I use these words in their hurtful and hegemonic senses–the weasels as portrayed are a product of western ideas about “civilization” that are self-reflective and self-centered.

The weasels can be found in three locations: The first is their village, a large, mazy complex of huts and walls made of mud and wood. The second is the inner ring, a massive terrarium filled with plant life and wild game. The third is the (previously) inviolate sanctuary of their holy site: the long-inert spaceship that their ancestors once piloted to the artifact. Were we Victorian anthropologists, each setting would provoke new assertions regarding their small but apparently thriving civilization.

Like the rat-ants, there is an implication that they don’t or can’t recognize what’s good for them. They need the life support systems repaired, too. It isn’t at all clear, though, what their fate will be beyond the happy conclusion of Starcross. They seem to have otherwise reached a steady equilibrium in terms of population and food resources. Alternately, that, like the atmosphere aboard the artifact, has been in a sort of stasis, and begins to deterioirate once the Human arrives.

I am leaping too far ahead, though, without even pausing for introductions:

Outskirts of Village
This is the edge of a populated area, growing denser as you move starboard. Primitive huts line the corridor, which is blocked ahead by a palisade built of mud and wood. An open gate, guarded by several spear-bearing aliens, leads into the structure. A small crowd of aliens has gathered to watch you.

They resemble human-sized weasels. Their bodies are thin, flexible, and covered with several colors of hair. There are all sizes and ages, and the stronger ones are armed with spears, knives, and other nasty hardware.

They gesture in a way intended to show friendship (they bare their huge razor-sharp teeth).
The smaller ones are hustled away, but almost immediately begin to sneak back.

In many ways, the Human has wandered into a 19th century tale of adventure: a lone, civilized (hu)man, far from home, stumbles into a “primitive” village. The otherness of its inhabitants gives rise to a sense of danger that cannot be allayed linguistically, and the meanings of their gestures are unclear. The ambiguous pairing of “friendship” and “razor-sharp teeth,” like many good jokes, presents as a sort of displaced anxiety. Here, the protagonist is both within and without their environment. While they remain heirs to a uniquely human destiny, the village is an indeterminate space in multiple senses.

A close up of the Infocom Invisiclues map of Starcross. It shows how the 10 Weasel Village areas are situated in the world of the game. The village occupies a large portion of the green ring, which falls between the red and yellow rings. At its center is the Green Warlock, the player's objective.
The weasel village, biggest little town this side of Ceres. Invisiclues map detail retrieved from MoCAGH.

For starters: the village appears to be a physical impossibility. It is indeterminate in the most concrete and immediate terms. While the village occupies a substantial ten rooms on the Infocom-published Invisiclues map, the player must follow the chief six times times to traverse one room (“In the Warren). It appears that, should the Human choose to stop following the chief, they can walk incredible distances in any direction (I gave up after 20+ moves each way). The Center of the Warren is both fixed in space (in the Green Hall between the Red and Yellow airlocks) and nowhere.

The geographical ambiguity of the village is a fitting home for its occupants, who themselves inhabit a disquieting space between human and animal other. They are vaguely human in shape–in clothing, they might seem human on a dark street. Their social organization and behaviors feel familiar–they are not unrecognizably “alien.” These weasels make art and tools, and they shape wood for construction purposes. At the same time, their recognizably non-human features makes it clear that they were not made in “God’s” (our) image.

There is a second complication–one that would merit an essay of its own: these weasels may be like people, but they aren’t the right kind of people (again, from a hegemonic perspective, not from my own). With a bit of CGI, they could be extras in an H. Rider Haggard adaptation. Without straying too far from my chosen topic, it is enough to say that the weasels are excluded from humankind’s Great Destiny on two accounts: animal features and their vaguely indigenous culture.

When the Human reaches their destination–the center of the village–they discover a sacred space covered with religious art:

>follow chief

Center of the Warren
This burrow is deep within the warren and the aliens seem to avoid it. An exit to port leads back into the warren. The walls are covered with crude but vibrant paintings depicting a huge spider, a gigantic mouse, man-sized lizards, and in the center, a being in a space suit. You realize that this room is the center of the green hall's junction with the ring corridor. In fact, a ladder leads down to the green airlock.

The chief alien, wearing your space suit, is here.

The chief grins, exposing his pointy teeth, and points portentously at the ladder. He curls up on the dirt floor and waits, watching you with interest.

It’s a lot to unpack. All of the intelligent inhabitants of the artifact (past and present) are pictured. For those of you who haven’t been able to get onboard with this human-centered cosmology business, well, there it is. In the center is the protagonist, the Human. (Western) people are so doggone important that the weasels aren’t even the stars of their own religion.

That isn’t the end of it, though. The weasel chief, presumably hoping to participate in the Human’s great destiny, urges them to enter his community’s most holy place–alone. There, the Human can infer the history of the weasel village. It seems that the weasels are descendants of space travelers who, like the protagonist, were snared by the artifact. Rather than overcome its challenges, they became “debased,” and over several generations lost the knowledge and culture of their home worlds. The many inhabitants of the village are all descended from these travelers–the weasels have clearly been aboard the artifact for a long, long time. The ship, no longer understood as a vehicle, is now a holy site:

Control Room
This was the control room of the ship which originally carried the now-primitive aliens to the artifact. The control panel was obviously destroyed by a fire or explosion long ago, although the lights here still glow dimly.

Outside you can see the surface of the artifact. Gazing longingly at that view are the empty eye sockets of a skeleton; the skeleton of an alien weasel. It is dressed in the shreds of a space suit and sitting in the control couch. Scattered around the couch are fresh offerings of fruit and vegetables.

In Zork, desecrating human remains will get the Adventurer killed. When it comes to weasels, though, all bets are off. In fact, desecrating their holy space is the only way forward. The Human’s path to victory requires knocking an arm off of the skeleton and vanishing down a portable teleporter:

>touch skeleton
When you touch the skeleton, its arm falls off the armrest. Something slides out of the space suit and onto the floor.

>get rod

>drop disk
The blue disk drops to the ground. There is an almost inaudible click as it comes to rest.

>stand on it
There is a loud click as you step on the disk, and then a moment of disorientation.

I am coming to regret that I didn’t dedicate an entire post to the weasels, but by now, a pattern is clear. The human encounters an alien (described in terms of Terran animals), and the encounter affirms the “natural” order of things as characterized a secularized version the “great chain of being:”

  1. Remote, Superior Intelligence
  2. Humanity
  3. Animals
    • Mammals
    • Reptiles
    • Insects
    • Other (Primordial/Demonic)

In the religioethical schema of Starcross, the Human is doubly entitled to desecrate the weasels’ holy place. In the first place, doing so serves the grand teleology of ascendant humanity. Likewise, disrespecting their religious beliefs is a natural consequence of humanity’s dominion over “beasts.” How could one ever take the weasels seriously? Bamboozling so-called “primitive” cultures and exploiting non-human animals are merely unproblematized waypoints on a hero’s journey.

Finally, Someone Who Understands Me: Revisiting the Conclusion of Starcross

At the end of the Human’s journey, they have a brief encounter with the superior intelligence whose civilization built the artifact. One of these builders–architects of the artifact’s small, habitable world–appears before the Human, seeming as ephemeral and incorporeal as any metaphysical entity might. They are a vision, or perhaps a prophesy:

A holographic projection of a humanoid figure appears before you. The being, tall and thin, swathed in shimmering robes, speaks in your own language. "Congratulations, you who have passed our test. You have succeeded where others failed. Your race shall benefit thereby." He smiles. "I expect to see you in person, someday." The projection fades.
This still from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey shows a man in a dark room. He is surrounded by control panels and flashing lights. He is wearing a close-fitting spacesuit with the helmet and gauntlets removed. The man is white with closely-cropped hair and finely-angled features. His expression is focused and intense.
You can do it, spaceman: a still from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Perhaps the (American?) human was made in their image, as their shape and fluency in English might suggest. The figure’s face goes undescribed in a rather pointed way. Has the protagonist reached the edge of their human-derived entitlement? Perhaps the Human has been blinded by this builder’s smile. There is something ominous about it all. After all, we players have labored several hours in this pageant of human exceptionalism, and it is not clear how graciously these Builders will bear their own unique place in the cosmos. It is uncertain whether humans can ever accept life in second place after so many millennia atop the food chain, but it seems they must try.

The Human will have time to consider these problems, perhaps gazing through a window while wondering: “how soon is someday?”

Afterword: On Returning to Starcross After Many Years

One might wonder why I spend so much time picking at these games. Why play them at all, one might ask, if I don’t like them?

Don’t be silly. Of course I like them. I love most of them. I wouldn’t spend the kind of time I’m spending (this project involves a little bit of playing, a lot of reading, and even more writing) if I didn’t love the subject matter. (Nearly?) everyone enjoys problematic media. It’s usually fine, so long a we have the decency to acknowledge the problems. Issues arise when people become defensive, denying that the things that they like have problems worth discussing.

It isn’t trivial, for instance, to talk about anthropocentrism in both secular and religious formations. Without it, how could we have stomached the appalling indifference of our species toward the welfare of this planet and its other inhabitants? These problems arise in games because games arise from an originating culture. Our problems–our anxieties–make their way into our media. How could they not?

When I point out, say, the colonial underpinnings of Zork, I’m not critiquing the political views of the MIT gang. I’m critiquing the culture that shaped them and their work.

I’m a product of that culture, too, as is this sprawling project to document every Infocom game. Perhaps I am a snake (now I am reduced to animal terms, too!) eating Infocom’s tail. Maybe it’s the other way around.

Coming Soon:

Tomorrow, the Gold Machine will veer off topic for a day to talk about an issue in the world of AAA publishing. On Wednesday, we’re at it again with the first of a three-post series about Suspended–one of my all-time favorite games.

16 thoughts on “Let Them Have Dominion: The Human-Centered Cosmology of Starcross

  1. “They all seem to be doing fine without the Human in survival terms.”

    You mean apart from the fact that they’re all going to suffocate in about a hundred terms?

  2. Er, OK, 300. What makes you think the human’s presence is what’s causing the problems? I don’t see any evidence at all for that. Instead, there is decay and overgrowth everywhere on the artifact.

    1. My joke answer is that I think, programmatically, the air supply cannot fail before the Human arrives. It is Schrodinger’s life support system. I have two more serious answers (EDIT: make that one question and one answer): they are parts of what I call the artifact’s “static diorama” and have no hour-to-hour existence. They have history, but beyond the Human’s proximity they have no present. Their history is that they have been doing fine for a long, long time.

      Question for you: the artifact is a test, but what kind of test do you think it is? A fairly easy one (artifact in pristine condition, pilot the ship) or the hard one the player experiences (artifact in poor repair, aliens and cleaning robots either hoarding or scattering the rods)? Both answers have problems.

  3. The metatextual answer — that none of this exists until the player comes along — is deeply unsatisfying, in that it’s true of literally every computer game. In this sense, it’s equally fair to say it’s the Dragonborn’s fault that Skyrim is in danger of obliteration by Alduin the World Eater because everything was fine until the Dragonborn turned up. It’s true, but only in a vacuous sense.

    Instead we have to read all these events from the perspective the protagonist intruding on a narrative: Skyrim was always going to be invaded bh dragons, and only the appearance of the Dragonborn can save it. The Starcross artifacts was always going to suffocate its inhahabitants and only the Human can save it. For that matter, the moon of Yavin was always going to be blown up by the Death Star and only Luke Skywalker can save it. We don’t say that Luke had just stayed out of things, Tarkin would never have built a Death Star!

    So I read the Human as a hero — albeit a flawed one, as you are certainly right that along the path to saving all the inhabitants, he treats at least some of them with contempt.

    As for test: for me, this is a straight-up mistake in the narrative. It would have been much better had the narrative been left mysterious, as in the original Rendezvous with Rama, and the Human’s triumph left as one over circumstances. Superimposing the test narrative poses more questions than it answers … in fact, were there even any questions? So while I read the test as being the relatively “easy” one of getting into space, finding and docking with the artifact and making your way to the control bubble — that is, I consider all the other problems as “accidents” that the testers did not intent — reading it that way doesn’t make everything neat and clean.

  4. The issue here is that Lebling introduces the problem by failing to define the parameters of the test. It is a mistake of the narrative, absolutely. I just can’t believe that the question of how to pilot the artifact would have been sufficient reason to build a massive ship (scaled in terms of kilometers!) capable of interstellar travel. Unfortunately, I can’t really believe the alternative, either. I’ve seen very intelligent people disagree on this subject; it just isn’t settled.

    I wouldn’t critique other games in this way, because I think Starcross is the only game I’ve played where this is an issue (I’d love to be reminded of other cases, though).

    In narrative terms, I don’t know how to answer the question of why the life support system fails 300 turns after the protagonist arrives. I can’t decide whether the atmosphere is part of the test or not, so I can’t definitively answer your question. I don’t know why, for instance, there are rods stowed in projectors and guns. These problems don’t help answer the question either way. In practical terms, the creatures aboard the the artifact have been self-sufficient for centuries, if not longer, so the life support failure doesn’t speak to their ability to survive in a general sense. We at least know this.

    I agree that the Rama approach would have been more satisfying and would have avoided these problems. I would have liked that, too. Based on Lebling’s text document included with the source code, your perspective (pristine ship=test) is the same as Lebling’s. It is a shame that this wasn’t made clear. Either or both of the scenes featuring the superior intelligence could have been easily modified to make this unambiguous. I think that a year or two later, once Infocom’s famously thorough testing processes were fully baked, this never would have happened.

    I don’t object to anything you’ve said, by the way.

  5. “The weasels are excluded from humankind’s Great Destiny on two accounts: animal features and their vaguely indigenous culture.”

    Oh, that’s not how I read this at all. We know they were a spacefaring race, so the w

  6. Gragh! Submitted too soon! Let’s try again …

    “The weasels are excluded from humankind’s Great Destiny on two accounts: animal features and their vaguely indigenous culture.”

    Oh, that’s not how I read this at all. We know they were a spacefaring race, so they were at least the equals of humans. Their present state represents a falling back from their former glories. They’re not excluded from anything: they simply failed to take their chance they were given. The “vaguely indigenous culture” is a consequence of this, not a cause.

    1. I think–and I’m not going after Lebling here–that reverting to a stereotypical native type (spears, mud huts, superstitions) indicates a failure of character on the part of the weasels. To me, they feel like something out of an old, problematic adventure film or movie. I consider their depiction to be that of quote-unquote “savages” (an ugly word). You have described the narrative’s rationale, but they way that looks has ugly cultural implications. At least to me. It’s not the what, it’s the how.

  7. “I just can’t believe that the question of how to pilot the artifact would have been sufficient reason to build a massive ship (scaled in terms of kilometers!) capable of interstellar travel.”

    Well, we believed in the Rama artifact, so maybe the problem here is one of the writing not quite getting the job done? (And that in turn will be at least in part due to the space-imposed limitations on the prose.) To me it doesn’t feel fictionally wrong to imagine a Rama/Starcross-like artifact running a multi-million-year course around a dozen or so likely systems waiting for the moment a spacefaring race arises on one of them. And as I write that, I realise that this conception takes away the human-centric perspective. Surely the makers were waiting for any successful race, not humans in particular?

    I do agree that some careful rewriting could have made the test aspect work better (if it was the be retained all along). There would be something more poignant in this marvellous multi-million experiment being on the verge of failure due to random failures and the passage of time, only to be rescued in the nick of the time by the lucky/heroic protagonist. If all the decay is merely part of the test, it cheapens the whole universe that it happens in.

  8. The Rama artifact, was wonderfully nebulous in terms of purpose. It didn’t seem related to humans at all. I think that is what I love most about the novel.

    Ostensibly yes, the creators would have been happy with any race that passed the test. However, from a lit crit perspective, I choose to examine what the text ends up privileging, I want to look at who succeeds and who fails, and how these outcomes reflect deep-rooted western values (in this case, humanity’s dominion over animals). It is interesting, don’t you think, that we don’t have aliens that look like Dr. Spock from Star Trek or Jawas from Star Wars (it was relatively novel at the time). Instead, they all look like Terran animals. It’s an interesting specificity to consider.

    It’s right there on the box that only you (Earthling) can meet the challenge.

    Of course, you’re within your rights not to buy any of it.

    And absolutely, it would have been a great story. Much better than the vagueness of the “it was all a test” ending which, yes, is open to being experienced as cheap. The superior intelligence has insight into what has been happening on the ship (they resurrect the protagonist when they die). Acknowledging the artifact’s current state would have settled everything!

  9. Well, OK, but what alternative do you propose? If Lebling wanted to communicate that this people were once a technologically advanced spacefaring race but have fallen from that state, how do you think he should have communicated that? Or are you saying (I really hope not) that you think that it a fundamentally wrong thing to want to communicate?

  10. “The Rama artifact […] didn’t seem related to humans at all.”

    I agree, that is a crucial aspect of the original novel — the sense that the humans who stumble on it are just like ants swarming around the base of Michelangelo’s David with only the vaguest understanding of what they’ve found. (Waaay back in the day, I read at least one of the sequels, but the fact that absolutely nothing from them has stayed in my memory is indicative of just how superfluous they were.)

    On the test-nature of this game, I wonder whether Lebling fell into the following really silly trap:
    1. Adventure games conventionally have a way of resurrecting a player who dies.
    2. Starcross needs to resurrect the player if he dies.
    3. Recent games (Zork II and III) have had a specific being (demon, DM) who does the resurrecting.
    4. Starcross needs a higher being to do resurrection when the player dies.
    5. The only available resurrector in this universe is an alien who if following your progress.
    6. So the alien must have a reason for watching you, i.e. he is testing you.

    The missteps here are in lines 2 and 4. There is in fact no need to support (and waste precious disk space on) resurrection at all, since in truth every player who dies restores a saved game rather than continuing post-resurrection. And even if resurrection is to be supported, it doesn’t have to have an in-universe justification.

    1. I’ve never read the Rama sequels, but it sounds like I’m better off. As-is it’s one of my all time favorites.

      I think you’re getting at one off the key issues. In mechanical terms, Starcross builds off of the Zork model and the established resurrection trope became an awkward narrative problem.

      So far as your other question goes: no, I think some sort of degeneration would be fine. I just don’t know that degeneration has to end up feeling like generic natives from our own 19th century anthropology texts. As for how? I’m out of my field of expertise here, but I think some flourishes to show that this is a unique culture would do. Perhaps the chief wields weasel and alien technology as if it were magic? Perhaps they have weasel cultural practices but no longer understand them (they inspect the ship’s mechanical components for ritualistic rather than practical reasons?). I think there a lot of ways that this could have been accomplished.

      It’s the *how*, not the *what* that I take issue with, and I think the “civilized” vs “uncivilized” comparison presented by the text reflects a then-common attitude toward native peoples in media.

  11. I think both of you are right, and at the same time we can have the conclusion that… this game in a sense is badly written.

    Maybe it is because Lebling was still a young writer, or that the company was still young as IF producers, so they usually fail (in these early games) to give a cohesion to their worlds with plot. I’m thinking about the inconsistences noted in your blog for the zork series, and this game.

    Anyway… we will see the progress of the gang and the progress of Lebling in their art. That to the particular lense of this blog. Thanks Drew!

  12. Hmmm, I think I failed to give concision: I mean… we have seen in Zork, and now in Starcross, that tipical explanation for the nature of the game: BECUASE IT IS A GAME! BECAUSE IT IS A TEST! IT WAS A TEST ALL THE TIME! CONGRATULATIONS!

    1. One thing that makes Lebling unique among the implementors is that all of his mistakes seem to be productive. In terms of craft (though not necessarily in terms of “fun video game”), you can see the effort to improve from game to game.

      As an easy example, the maze in Zork I was not enjoyable. He tried to improve the concept in Zork II, and even though the results were bad, I admire his ambition. The Starcross maze was better but surpassed by the excellent “Oddly-Angled” rooms in Enchanter.

      In a way, the problems of Starcross are a consequence of providing more interesting NPC encounters (implications of culture) than those of Zork II.

      So by the end of his IF career, we get the fruits of all of his efforts, Lurking Horror and Spellbreaker.

      But you are right, I think. Starcross may be the clearest example of Infocom struggling with Text vs. Game. It makes sense as a game but falls short as a text. I struggle to think of other cases as distinct as this one. Usually, bad game=bad text, and vice versa.

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